The capital city of Egypt, Cairo, has 24 million inhabitants. There aren’t a huge number of high rises, so the city is wide spread. Rows upon rows of apartment buildings look like they haven’t been finished yet, with rebar sticking out of the concrete and no glass in the windows. Most buildings have the same colourless, dusty look as the desert on whose fringe the city was built. Thanks to the Nile, there is a green stretch here, too, of agricultural land and palm trees.
The endless traffic creates a smog, not helped by the desert dust, that turns the sky grey by mid day. In the morning we can see pyramids from our 6th floor hotel room but by noon they have faded into the smog. It’s easy to get around by hailing a taxi. But you do need to insist on a meter. As in many Muslim countries, Friday and Saturday is weekend here and taxi fares often increases. The first taxi we tried on Friday morning quoted us 100 Egyptian pounds for a ride we knew would cost 50. We waved him away and the next taxi was indeed 50 EGP.
The first trip we made here was to Giza, to see the ‘real’ pyramids. Those in the Valley of the King are mere mounds and hills, not the pyramids we came to see. Seeing the pyramids all the way from our hotel room in Ma’adi should have told me how big they are. Once our van got closer, I thought it might be disappointing: just some large piles of rocks. But once I stood at the foot of the towering Great Pyramids, I got all choked up. It was overwhelming. I had this amazing feeling of centuries of people who toiled here, who dwelled and worked here. Thousands of years. People rolling stones up the sides. People buildings tombs inside. People selling their wares here, much like is still happening today. Camels lay in the shades while people flocked to the pyramids. It is a whopping 140 meters tall, I felt tiny at the base gazing up. How did they do it, all those centuries ago? I heard that all the rocks of this one pyramid could form a 10’ high wall around the entire country of France…
One of my other favourite places to visit in Cairo was the Khan El Khalili (Kh is a guttural ‘g’ in Arabic so it sounds like Ghan el Gha-lili), We started at the large mosque where families sat in the grass to eat from the tin containers they brought, getting ready to say their prayers. It was about 7 PM and getting dark as we followed the labyrinth of cobblestone streets and alleys. Archways revealed more and more tiny shops. Here you can buy leather, cloths, sponges, copper bowls, old old dial telephones, cotton candy, and anything else you might need. People wore western clothing, or gallibayas, long cotton shirts mostly in light blue or grey. Most women wear head scarves. There’s still a lot of smoking here, even inside restaurants. Smoking a water pipe is also popular. You can sit at a cafe that offers hookahs many flavours – rosewater, hibiscus, etc. I bought a wool carpet (that I now have to fit into my little roll-on bag) and some souvenirs. Then we ate traditional Egyptian food in a wonderful, bustling place with waiters wearing a fez and customers smoking hookahs while listening to traditional wailing music. When we left the souk, around 10 PM, the streets were even more crowded, the families still picnicking and, at an outdoor coffeeshop a group of older men was happily playing music with traditional string instruments and drums.
With tourism down, vendors are desperate for clients. The funniest vendor was during our Nile cruise. Suddenly a tiny row boat appeared next to our cruise ship. A great big Egyptian stood up in his little boat, held up a tablecloth and hollered “Héllo dahling! Want to buy a table cloth?” He ended up bundling it up in a plastic bag and tossed it 5 decks upon, right onto a small table on the upper deck. It was the funniest show you’ve ever seen. Some people on the boat unwrapped it, he threw more, they threw stuff back and eventually he sold something, the money wrapped in the plastic bag and tossed back into the rowboat. The show was probably worth more than the merchandise.
Egypt doesn’t feel like the other African countries I have visited. Neither does it really resemble Middle Eastern countries, except perhaps Pakistan. So I asked several Egyptians “Do you feel your country is African or Middle Eastern?” They looked at me and shook their heads. “We’re neither. We’re Egyptian.” And it seems true that their history and culture is uniquely their own.
We find the people incredibly friendly. Many speak at least some English. They always smile and say “Welcome to Egypt!”. As soon as we tell a taxi driver that we are from Canada, he grins, gives us a thumbs up saying “Ah! Good! Canada – good!”
Traffic in Cairo makes me feel like I’m a pawn in some crazy board game in which each piece (car, bus, donkey cart or motorbike) aims to fill the next empty space. They don’t pay any attention to lines on the road but simply aim for space in the general direction they are headed. If you are in the far left lane and need to go right, you just elbow your way over and try to narrowly miss all of the other vehicles lurging in the same or different directions. They all honk, too. And, weirdest of all, most vehicles turn off their lights at night….
We visited the Egyptian Museum but were not impressed. It felt more like a storage facility than a museum. Rows upon rows of shelves with mummies, statues, carvings, all just lined up but not nicely displayed. There’s no air conditioning. Some displays have an old typed card with information but many treasures just sit behind a smudged window. It’s time the new museum, scheduled for 2020, opens to properly display Egypt’s treasure trove of artifacts.
In Cairo we also had the pleasure of going out for a night on a felucca. These traditional, flat bottom boats have one large triangular sail. By hoisting or lowering it, the boatsman gets where he wants, slowing tacking up and down the waters of the Nile. We watched the lights of Cairo by night as we ate shaved meat with yogurt and hummus and deep fried strips of aish baladi, traditional pita bread. As the warm air hugged us and the sounds of Cairo’s crazy traffic faded, we felt very grateful to have been able to visit this unique country and its beautiful people.